A product review blog primarily focusing on food + drink that is organic, sustainable, wild-harvested, ethical, or otherwise well-produced.

Tag: food

 Mountain Culture Kombucha

While passing through Virginia recently, we came upon a brand of kombucha we’d never seen before which turned out to come from some local brewers: Mountain Culture Kombucha. Admittedly, the goofy-casual branding on the bottles had us skeptical about the quality of what they might contain, but their ingredients seemed solid and their flavoural aims were intriguing enough. So, we picked up three flavours that covered a decently broad scope and crossed our fingers.

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By the time we had tried the first one, we were already back on the road. If only we’d known while we were still in Virginia how incredible these were! We would have picked up one of every flavour. These are brilliants brews; so far, across the whole line. Our selections were Citra Hops, Original, and Appalachian Harvest. To get a sense of the brewer’s baseline approach when trying new kombuchas, we always make an effort to pick up an ‘original’ if they produce one. It’s an important barometer once you start trying their blends.

We already mentioned that part of what convinced us to give Mountain Culture a try was their unique flavours. Citra Hops? We’d yet to have hops in any kombucha (excluding kombucha beer), and most certainly not such particular, fun varieties of hops (they use centennial hops as well as the eponymous citra hops). With Appalachian Harvest, the name drew us in. It clearly communicated a flavoural impression without relying on explicitly named ingredients or gimmicky-cute titles (e.g. Fred Astaire Pear or Elite Beet). Others we’ve yet to experience include a mixed mint blend that includes one of our favorite mint varieties – chocolate mint, and Sumatra Sunrise, a coffee-infused kombucha and the only one of theirs to use honey.

Extreme balance and delicacy struck us most about Mountain Culture. For having such strong personalities, every one of the varieties we tried was almost weirdly understated, ‘quiet’, and remarkably tasteful, with a physical lightness that nearly lifts you up with it (likely a result of Mountain Culture’s apparent preference for green tea as opposed to black). But that alone doesn’t get close to explaining the miracles these bottles contain. For all their delicateness, they are intensely clear and focused. The two biggest kombucha problems are entirely avoided: it isn’t yeasty, or vinegary. The effervescence is perfect – fine, concentrated, and released gradually and consistently throughout. Not too strong at the outset, and not going flat five minutes after opening. Even their appearance is distinctive, with the colours of all three possessing a glowing quality similar to what you might see in fresh whey from good raw milk.

Despite Mountain Culture’s complexity, these are by far some of the most accessible kombuchas we’ve had. If you’ve yet to successfully convince people that kombucha can be anything other than just a ‘silly health tonic’, these would be a great place to start. Seriously, you could serve these in place of champagne or prosecco at a fancy dinner party and no one would be disappointed, except of course those expecting alcohol.

Citra Hops provides incredibly refreshing perspectives on both kombucha and hops. Dried hops have such a wonderful smell, and making a simple tea from them with lemon juice is lovely. It’s sad that they’re an ingredient so inextricably related to beer for most people, as they’ve got much more going on flavour-wise than the ‘hoppy’ quality generally identified in a typical beer profile. In the context of a kombucha, which is lighter than pretty much any beer you’re likely to find, hops gets to have fun and lend its floral and fruity notes, leaving its bitter baggage behind. Citra Hops explodes at the top end with bright citrus, particularly grapefruit and lime, with a delicate rosewater-like quality balancing out the high end.

Their Original is a radically unique essential kombucha. Especially surprising in relation to Citra Hops, as so much of what seemed to be decoration from the hops was actually coming from the brew itself! The intense lightness, the smooth profile, and excitingly elusive citrus seem to characterize Mountain Culture as a whole, at least what we’ve had of it so far, and for these qualities to come from the kombucha alone is incredible. More than with most kombucha lines, this Original is very much a part of the other flavours – not only tying them together as a series or serving as a carrier, but playing an integral part in their identity. The way it handled sweetness was so perfect it could almost slip by unnoticed; like the temperature outside matching that of the surface of your skin. To craft a kombucha of such piercing, quiet beauty without adulteration shows true artistry on the part of brewmaster Peter Roderick.

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Though these all blew us away, Appalachian Harvest was especially different, both in appearance and taste. Its color is a distinctive hazy orange, almost unnatural looking before you remember the ingredients. Its flavour is a skillful balancing act of carrot, apple, ginger, and of course kombucha. Though its not unusual to find these three ingredients together, the way it’s done is unlike anything we’ve ever had. Carrot contributes earthy, rooty tones that are somehow light, nonintrusive, and pleasantly avoidant of its typical association with juice bars. Ginger is surprisingly subdued, adding the slightest electric zing without ever getting to its usual point of bite. Apple is almost unidentifiably mild, except as a very gentle supporting sweetness outside the kombucha base’s profile, rounding out the picture perfectly. Appalachian Harvest appreciates aspects of all three flavours that ultimately feel deeply familiar, highlighting by association elements of each that you may have forgotten were even there.

Ingredient wise, it seems as though Mountain Culture is doing everything right, but we can’t say for sure as their labeling is a bit unclear. As is pretty much standard for kombucha at this point, they are organic and unpasteurized. They use spring water, which always gets a plus in our book, and especially so when they’re trying to reflect their regional character by using local water sources. On their site it says they use fresh-pressed juices and ‘raw sugar’, which would be amazing and rare, but on their bottles some juices are labeled ‘fresh-pressed’ and others are simply ‘pressed’ (leading us to think probably cold-pressed but bottled juices), and the sugar is just evaporated cane juice. We’re betting this is probably just a case of a young company that hasn’t gotten their labeling and information unified yet, rather than any sort of purposeful evasiveness on their part.

If you happen to live in Virginia or otherwise find yourself in the area, lucky you! Grab as many as you can get your hands on! Unfortunately for most of us, Mountain Culture is currently keeping close to home, and doesn’t appear to be available in stores outside the state, with D.C. being the one exception. It’s also available by delivery in select parts of North Carolina.

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Cacao Prieto – selections from the Criollo series

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Since the Mast Brothers emergence from Brooklyn in 2007, craft chocolatiers have become an integral part of the urban Northeast’s artisanal foods scene. Of course the Mast Brothers are practically a household name at this point, but their former position as ‘those chocolate folks from Brooklyn’ is no longer a tenable title as three other companies also hailing from the area seem to be gaining a strong foothold: Fine & Raw, Raaka, and Cacao Prieto. Being the least familiar with the latter (as their distribution seems to have the smallest radius), we were intrigued when we came upon them recently; first by the nicely typeset, open-framed boxes of their organic, single-origin fruit-and-nut ‘bark bars’, and then by the decadent packaging of their Criollo series. Impressive production standards, including the fact that they own and operate the farm their cacao and sugar both come from, made the decision final.

As now seems to be expected of craft chocolate producers – at least in Brooklyn – Cacao Prieto has a factory/store which offers tours and tastings of both their chocolate and a variety of liquors (many infused with cacao) that they also produce in-house. Their founder, Daniel Prieto Preston, is a former aerospace technologies inventor, a background which after moving into the role of chocolatier he brought to the field in order to invent and improve upon various chocolate-making machines he felt had yet to reach their full technological potential. Chief among these is Prieto Preston’s Vortex Winnower – a custom winnowing machine which is made to separate cacao nib from husk to a degree of exactitude that has until now been otherwise unachievable.

In trying to select two bars which might best represent their general approach, we went with Original and Dominican Spicethough other flavours such as Orchid and Absinthe were also tempting.

You can’t help but take notice of the Criollo series’ packaging. It’s attractive. That said, beyond simple aesthetics it becomes a bit problematic. In this line of bars, the design appears to be directly referencing the Dominican Republic’s colonial history, as well as another popular export from the republic: cigars. Here we find the company’s name ‘hand-written’ on a cigar-style label in a script that feels designed to give the impression of its having been penned by an early colonist-turned-plantation owner. These labels impose themselves on the underlying ‘primitive’ patterning which appears to be very vaguely hinting at the idea of traditional Dominican art or textiles. Then to make things official, the outer label is reinforced with an embossment of the Prieto seal, putting the final stamp on this miniature drama of semiotics. Of course, we aren’t assuming any of these details are intentional, but feel they warrant mentioning.

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Once unwrapped, the two bars appear identical in colour, which makes sense as all their cacao is of the same hyper-specific origin. Their minimalist gridding stands in sharp contrast to their highly stylized exterior packaging. There’s no bas-relief artwork cast on the bar’s top, no geometric texturing of each square, just chocolate effectively divided into rectangular pieces. The background connecting all the pieces is both disarmingly thin and reassuringly sturdy, making for an easy and clean breaking off of each bite, as well as an unaffected minimalism and lightness that feels very contemporary.

Biting into the bars, we were both immediately underwhelmed. Where’s the cacao fruit? Hidden beneath the dark roast perhaps, as that’s most of what we found we were tasting. The roast is, in its own right, lovely, but it definitely makes for a much more uniform flavour profile, one that is far more distanced from its roots than we expected from a company that so touts the distinctiveness of their ‘terroir’. Texturally too, the degree of smoothness, though impressive, didn’t do anything for us. Initially exciting, the silky extremity ultimately felt artificial, similar to ice cream made with a Pacojet. Likely appealing to some, but not to us.

The Original bar was a subtle experience. With none of them being particularly distinctive, most of the flavours we found had to really be reached for. There was an element of dried fruit, specifically one of raisin, which was nicely distributed throughout, giving it a good rounded balance. The high, slightly fruity, pre-bitter part of coffee was present as well. Overall though, it’s just a really well-made, ‘classic’ chocolate. Classic in the sense that it tastes familiar and comforting, favours roast over fruit, and strives for uniformity in its texture. It would make for a really great s’more.

Dominican Spice defied our expectations as well, but in a much more interesting way. Knowing it was to contain allspice, clove, cassia (cinnamon), and nutmeg, we were prepared for the spices to be much more heavy-handed; a ‘flavoured’ chocolate bar. We were instead confronted with a very tastefully balanced ratio of cacao to spice. Achingly restrained, so delicately handled that it felt more like an example of a slightly different varietal than an alteration of the bar we’d just tried. For the most part, none of the spices stood out on their own, but together formed something akin to a mild winter tea or a good eggnog. In different moments, we briefly tasted dried blueberry, chicory, and at one point a spiciness that was difficult to attribute a source to.

It should be said that we have definite preferences in chocolate bar styles. Generally, we like to experience the cacao plant itself in some way, whether that’s by highlighting its true fruitiness, or by leaving enough texture behind to help draw attention to its original seed state. Cacao Prieto produces bars that do neither of these things, but with that said, for a certain and other taste, these could be near ideals.

Despite our indifferences, the bars are undeniably strong from a technical perspective. Nothing is wrong with them, per se. They’re smooth, rich, and incredibly well-balanced. They may not be carving out radically new territory in the field of chocolate bars, but they’re certainly refining aspects of it. There’s a lot of subtlety to their craft, and the basic ingredients are all highly traceable and seem to be coming from an excellent source. Though they’re not our cup of tea, we do appreciate Cacao Prieto’s intended trajectory.

Dupont’s 2011 Organic Cider (Cidre Bouché Brut de Normandie)

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We picked this cider up on a sort of hasty whim from a small health food store in Jacksonville, Florida named Grassroots Natural Market that had an uncommonly fantastic selection of beers, wines, and ciders for such a tiny shop (and a natural foods-oriented one at that). For whatever reason, there aren’t a lot of organic ciders and beers out there yet, so when we come across ones we haven’t seen, such as this treasure from French producer Domaine Dupont we feel like we’re obligated to give them a try. It wasn’t until a few days later when we went to photograph and review this bottle that we noticed it was from 2011, which is quite well-aged in cider terms. They can certainly age longer, but even the producers themselves suggest five years is about the end of the curve before potential decline, so this one was definitely peaking by the time we’d gotten to it.

After we popped the cork, but before we started in on sniffs and tastes, the intensity of the cider’s carbonation was more than apparent. Pouring it into our glasses, it was almost unreal how persistent the bubbles were. It looked as though they were being pumped into the glass from beneath the table it was so effervescent. In total, we were sipping for at least half-an-hour, and by the time we were through they were still going pretty strong. The color was a deep ambery-gold, slightly cloudy, with a bit of sediment on the bottom.

The leather hit us right away. Overpowering, touching on suffocating at first, it remained present and up-front the entire time. On the nose, on the tongue, it is off-dry, medium-bodied, carbonated leather extract. Underneath, there was something like the deep syrupy part of overripe pineapple, with the sweet element of tobacco coming in to meet the two in the middle. Very fun blend of flavours. The tobacco-leather quality could even be described as smoked paprika. As it opens up, you can start to catch the apple of the cider for a millisecond as it hits the front of your tongue, then on to the leathery tobacco again, before finishing with black or kalamata olives at the back.

Our favorite effect was perhaps that eventually, if allowed to sit on your tongue for long enough, the warming of the cider in the mouth released the comforting flavour of warm cooked apples, which after such a distinctly non-apple experience was a welcome reminder of this beverage’s origins. Funny that the most present apple taste was one of cooked apples, seeing as the cider is unpasteurized!

We’ll definitely be keeping an eye out for Domaine Dupont from now on, and cannot wait to find out what different vintages might have in store for us.  It shouldn’t be hard to spot them as their labeling is gorgeously minimal, with a nicely textured paper stock on a good heavy bottle. It’s a pity there aren’t more domestically produced unpasteurized ciders made with organic apples. We have no problem reaching overseas for quality, but it seems silly that we should almost have to. We’ll be heading to the Pacific Northwest soon though, and in that area surely we’ll find more ciders along these lines. If you have any recommendations, please let us know!